How Ohtani can take his game to ANOTHER level

December 9th, 2023

This story was originally published on Nov. 30. is republishing it now that Ohtani has agreed to a deal with the Dodgers.

We already broke down all the ways Shohei Ohtani got even better on his way to his second unanimous AL MVP Award. But what if he can go even higher?

We think he can.

Ohtani is already the best baseball player in the world. He crushes everything as a hitter. He has a devastating arsenal as a pitcher. But let's find some ways the two-way superstar can keep raising his game, now that he has ended his hotly anticipated free agency by agreeing to a 10-year, $700 million deal with the Dodgers.

Here's how Ohtani can get even better in 2024 and beyond.


1) Aggressiveness in the zone

What could take Ohtani from 40 home runs to 50 home runs … or even more? Here's one idea: Try to jump on more sluggable pitches in the heart of the strike zone.

In 2023, Ohtani swung at about 73% of pitches in the "heart" region -- that means inside the strike zone and not on the edges, the pitches a hitter can do the most damage on. Swinging at three-quarters of those pitches might seem like a lot, but it's actually in the middle of the pack for a Major Leaguer.

Ohtani could take a cue from a fellow elite hitter like Corey Seager, who swung at pitches in the heart of the zone a Major League-high 91% of the time. Or Freddie Freeman, who did so 86% of the time. Or Bryce Harper, who did so 83% of the time. Or even his longtime teammate Mike Trout, who did so 81% of the time.

Even on "meatballs" -- pitches that are truly right down the middle -- Ohtani was not very aggressive last season, swinging 74% of the time. In his first MVP season in 2021, by contrast, Ohtani swung at 86% of middle-middle pitches. League leaders like Seager, Freeman and Harper will swing at those pitches more than 90% of the time.

2) Cut down even more on his whiffs and chases

Ohtani wasn't just a home run king in 2023. He was also a .304 hitter. The 2023 season was Ohtani's best contact-hitting season of his MLB career so far. He was the most complete hitter he's ever been.

That's why if you look at the hitting metrics on Ohtani's Baseball Savant page, he's elite in nearly every category:

But there's still one tiny spot of blue in that sea of red: Ohtani's swing-and-miss numbers. Ohtani still swings and misses at a high rate, and is prone to chasing pitches out of the strike zone, which is why he still strikes out a lot. 

Now, Ohtani's numbers look like that every season. And those whiffs haven't stopped Ohtani from being a two-time MVP. If he needs to take those hacks to win home run crowns, he'll take the swing-and-miss along with it. 

But hey, he's already shown he can improve as a contact hitter -- look no further than the career-high, 95th-percentile .294 expected batting average backing up his actual batting average in 2023. If he can take even one more step, while still maintaining his top-of-the-league power like he did last season, Ohtani's all-around hitting numbers could exceed even what we've seen.

3) Be ready for more sliders

Pitchers are always trying to figure out Ohtani. He's been attacked plenty of different ways over the years, and he always seems to find the answer. It's Trout-esque.

One of Ohtani's biggest improvements over the last few seasons has been how he's learned to crush fastballs, especially high fastballs, the ones pitchers use to strike out power hitters with a more uppercut style of home run swing like Ohtani has. Well, Ohtani's been hammering those, and striking out against them less and less. And now pitchers are trying to get him out with breaking stuff instead -- specifically, with sliders.

Ohtani saw a career-high slider percentage in 2023, and those four-seamers he was crushing? He ended up facing a career-low amount.

Of course, Ohtani can also crush sliders. He hit 10 homers against them in 2023, his second-most against any pitch type after four-seamers (14), and he slugged .562 against them. But even Ohtani, like basically all hitters, is more vulnerable to striking out against a slider than a fastball, and he gets fewer hits against them. He batted .229 against sliders in 2023, with a 42% swing-and-miss rate and 40 strikeouts, his most against any pitch type.

Couple that with the damage he's doing against heaters, and Ohtani might expect to see even more sliders in 2024. But the more he sees them, the more he can be ready to handle them.

4) Take control of the bottom of the zone

Ohtani showcased excellent plate coverage last season, especially in his ability to hit home runs off pitches in any quadrant of the strike zone. So where can a pitcher get him out?

It's hard to find a zone where Ohtani is bad, but there are certain areas where he's less dangerous, and those are mainly at the bottom of the strike zone and below.

In general, most of Ohtani's swings-and-misses and chases come on low pitches.

But there are more specific areas he might try to improve his coverage against right-handed pitchers compared to left-handed pitchers. Against righties last season, Ohtani's overall quality of contact was at its weakest vs. pitches down and away. Against lefties, it was at its weakest vs. pitches in the lower third of the zone.


5) Find his splitter command

We were focusing on Ohtani's hitting first since he won't pitch next season. But when he does pitch again in 2025, here's the No. 1 issue he'll want to address: splitter command.

Ohtani's splitter is his signature pitch. It was the pitch that put him on the map when he arrived in the Majors. Over the last two seasons, his sweeper has stolen the spotlight, but the splitter is still Ohtani's most devastating strikeout pitch.

Except in 2023, he lost his command of it. Look at Ohtani's splitter locations. He lost more of them up and to the arm side than ever before.

Ohtani never wants to throw his splitter up. All of those are missed spots.

Because he couldn't command the split, he threw it less than 7% of the time, a career low, and only used it to get 17 of his 167 strikeouts. (Compare that to 2022, when he got 66 K's on splitters, or 2021, when he got 78.) Ohtani's splitter is too good for him not to prioritize regaining command of it when he returns to the mound.

6) Take advantage of his diverse repertoire

Ohtani has a lot of different nasty pitches -- several of which he's added during the last few seasons. Let's focus on one of those: the sinker he started throwing in 2022.

Ohtani debuted a sinker in the middle of the '22 season, and since he started throwing it, that sinker has averaged 96 mph with 15 inches of run. It even hits 100-plus mph from time to time.

In 2022 and '23, he was still testing the waters with the sinker, only throwing it about 6% of the time. He should start throwing it more in 2025.

Here's why: Ohtani's sinker will pair perfectly with his sweeping slider, which has become his primary pitch. The sinker-sweeper combo is a good one because those two pitches break in opposite directions. Ohtani's sinker breaks 15 inches from left to right; his sweeper breaks 16 inches from right to left.

Ohtani's main fastball, his four-seamer, pairs perfectly with his vertical-breaking splitter. His newer sinker could work just as beautifully with his sweeper.